So last week, ESPN canned Bill Simmons. And now everyone’s doing the fun thing where we speculate about where he will end up for the next phase of his career. Where’s ol’ Bill gonna go? Fox? Turner/Bleacher Report? NBC? A boutique startup underwritten by a messianic venture capitalist with a boner for the NBA? Who’s gonna land the Bro Whisperer? He won’t come cheap!
This seems like a good moment to point out that, wherever he winds up, it’s going to involve some rich asshole paying $7 million a year for a terrible writer. Bill Simmons is a terrible writer. Pioneering sports blogger! Tasteful employer of excellent writers! Elite podcaster! Good at coming up with documentary series ideas! Lousy writer. His writing is bad and not good.
Typically, criticism of Simmons’s writing takes the form of apologia. Before he became famous and powerful and got distracted by the life of a celebrity, the narrative goes, he was a talented writer with a unique gift for communicating in the everyman sports fan’s voice. The irony of this is that the insider access supposedly responsible for the decline of his writing has greatly improved Simmons’s basketball analysis, giving him only fairly recently in his career the very first thing he has ever done above replacement-level as a writer. Nowadays, when he deigns to form and write and publish considered thoughts on the subject, once every nine months or so, they’re more informed and credible than back in the days when you could learn all Bill Simmons had to say about basketball by watching the scene in White Men Can’t Jump where Woody Harrelson pontificates on the difference between white and black players.
Every Bill Simmons column begins with 300 words relating the story of the time Bill’s buddy Scrote brought his hot girlfriend along on one of their guys-only Las Vegas trips. They had a great time—Murph-E won five grand at blackjack and they spent the rest of the weekend screaming “I’m Keith Hernandez” at their cabbies!—but later they all agreed that, even though he was the only one of them who got laid all weekend, it had been weird and uncomfortable for Scrote because he was just on a different wavelength from everybody else. This is offered as conclusive proof that NBA superstars prefer to play on loaded teams with other superstars.
There follows, always, an impenetrable swamp of meta-meta-meta-meta-self-reference, facile Player A/Player B comparisons, groaningly inapt and/or outright gross pop-culture and ex-girlfriend analogies, and suburban white-dude high-fiving. If the word-swamp happens to contain some atomic quantity of actual Things To Say other than “I, Bill Simmons, contain the universe” anywhere in there amid the recaps of well-known anecdotes about the 1987 season of Saturday Night Live, it’s fragmentary and seemingly accidental, like stray peanut molecules that made their way into a bag of Spicy Street Taco-flavored Doritos Jacked during assembly at the plant.
It ends a month later with a brief recap of a Bill Russell interview from 1997, presented with a hushed solemnity befitting a relic of the True Cross, in which Russell renders the entire rest of the column superfluous by expressing its core banality from the perspective of an actual NBA superstar in a single sentence.
Sloppiness and the desperate need for an editor have always been the defining features of Simmons’s written work. If you dug his persona, you forgave the amateurish writing—or even found it endearing, or didn’t care. On the other hand, if the persona struck you as a smug, smirking affectation, then the fact that the guy using it to deliver such dismal insights as “Ryan Reynolds is not as charismatic a leading man as George Clooney,” “Baseball games are long,” and “There was a show on TV the other night about the Eagles” wrote with all the precision and command of a FunDip-addled kindergartener spraying pee all over a bathroom floor likely struck you as baffling, if not infuriating.
Sometimes he’s more of a wreck than others. Simmons opened his most recent mailbag column with a 2,700-word introduction in which he described the agony of deciding whether to spend the following evening attending Game 7 of the Spurs-Clippers playoff series in Los Angeles or the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas. For this he received a moderate quantity of grief on the internet for being a millionaire celebrity shitbag who used his exalted media perch to mewl about how he can’t fit two high-profile, hyper-expensive sporting events into his social schedule on the same night. He probably deserved worse.
Here’s the third paragraph of the column:
The Case For Game 7: Even before it officially became “One of Best Round 1 Series Ever,” we knew it had a chance to broach “Feels Like The Finals If They Happened In Round 1” (which is exactly what happened) … I attended Games 1, 2 and 5 in L.A., and they were more like life experiences than basketball games … thanks to those quietly dramatic Hack-a-DJ moments, these contests balloon to nearly three hours and feel a little like those Yankees–Red Sox nail-biter marathons from 2003 and 2004 (without 86 years of baggage and eight decades of hammer-versus-nail story lines, but still) … potentially, the final basketball game ever for one of my favorite non-Celtics ever, The Great Tim Duncan (I think that’s officially his name now) … if the Clips were to lose a Game 7 at home, we’d inch even closer to a career scenario with CP3 and Blake that becomes a Hottest of Hot Takes cross between “The Poor Man’s Stockton and Malone” and “The Sedin Brothers of Basketball” … seeing Kawhi the Sharktopus in person in Game 7 mode (hold this thought) … Pop Sarcastically Working The Refs vs. Doc Sarcastically Working the Refs in the Game 7 of Sarcastic Reactions … the biggest game of CP3’s life, hands down … the biggest game of Blake’s life, hands down … it’s a Legacy Game in every respect.
The first thing to note about this paragraph is that it, like most of the rest of the column, is written in a nigh-unintelligible Sports Guy patois that verges on complete fucking gibberish. “We’d inch even closer to a career scenario with CP3 and Blake that becomes a Hottest of Hot Takes cross between ‘The Poor Man’s Stockton and Malone’ and ‘The Sedin Brothers of Basketball.’” What the fuck does that mean? For chrissakes, was he having a fucking seizure when he wrote it? And now for our local sports update, we turn to our Channel 9 News sports editor, Bernie Taupin!
The second, and more important, thing to note about it is that while this column was written in word salad, that didn’t really register at all in the negative response to it. We’re all used to Simmons writing like this; he’s been doing it for 15 years. Both halves of that sentence are depressing as hell.
The circumstances have changed; the writing has not. Simmons circa 2000 wouldn’t have been choosing which of those two events to attend—he’d have been writing insufferable gobbledygook about Is this the greatest TV night in sports history? I’ve got it as a “Brother, You Are Going Down” on the Sports Greatness TV Night Heat Quotes Scale ... It’s a good thing they’re not on at the same time, or my remote control hand would be as worn out as Houston at the end of The World’s Biggest Gangbang 3. Definitely a Remote Hand Punishment all-timer. If that seems more appealing to you, that’s because you’re more willing to accept graphorrheic nonsense and shameless pandering from an insurgent upstart than from a rich celebrity.
That’s not entirely unreasonable. If Simmons understood how analogies work, he himself might liken it to how, say, Trevor Ariza’s lousy handle and glacial first step didn’t seem like big weaknesses when he was the intriguing young D-and-3 wing lightening Kobe Bryant’s workload, but made him woefully inadequate when the Houston Rockets foolishly paid him to be a star. Context and expectations change our perceptions, sure—but, they didn’t change Trevor Ariza’s game. His handle really is shit. Bill Simmons’s writing really is bad.
So, if his writing was always shitty, and fame and access actually improved his skill-set, then why don’t you like Simmons as much as you used to? What changed?
You did. You are not 19 anymore. You matured, read other, better writers, and eventually discovered the difference between an analogy and a reference, between affectation and personality, between pointless maundering and having something to say. You grew to prefer coherence over in-group signaling. You figured out that writing that claps you on the back and congratulates you for being careless and white and male and steeped in mainstream pop culture is the precise opposite of subversive. You lost your taste for Bill Simmons, whose writing is bad. You grew up. Good for you! Growing up is cool.
I have no idea whether Simmons’s other skills justify the millions hiring him likely will cost. Maybe? Who knows. Whichever gazillionaire wins the auction, I hope he budgets enough leftover cash for a second, less flashy purchase: a tough and skilled and empowered editor. Bill Simmons needs one, because his writing is bad.
Photo via AP